Sunday, January 16, 2005

Sideshow U.S.A.:
Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination
Rachel Adams

So you’re at the pulled-pork part of the street fair along the North Carolina border. Or, let’s say you’re about to buy a trunkful of illegal fireworks. All the little booths have the same merchandise at roughly the same price. Then your buddy says, “Holy smokes, that one over there has a cashier that’s a bearded lady.” The premise of this book is that you’d go to the booth with the bearded lady because Americans are fascinated by freaks, so fascinated that they display them as cruelly as they do zoo animals. And when a freak isn’t available, they invent one so that people can ooh and aah and feel comforted to know that their own oddities are, well, normal.

Adams points out the significance of our obsession with freaks, notable in a country that seems to be based on acceptance of individuality. It seems contradictory then, to display and gawk at freaks. Are freak shows a celebration of independence or a nudge toward conformity (2)?

Adams looks at the idea of freakishness from a number of perspectives, including the historical, pointing out an important idea that I think applies not just specifically to freakishness but also to other important parts of popular culture. She says that “freakishness is a historically variable quality,” noting that at one time freakishness might have denoted “divine meaning,” whereas “by the nineteenth century freaks had no inherent significance” (5).

Adams deals in her first chapter with the issue of the sideshow “Africans” displayed like zoo animal freaks. Doing so was a way of acting out racism, or in Adams’s words demonstrating a struggle “over cultural authority” (32). The circus show people created a spectacle of “ethnographic freaks” under the pretense of educating people about “African wild men” (32). These side show workers would be fed raw meat and told to grunt and groan as though they could not speak. Ota Benga was one such creation; he had to share a cage with an orangutan. Others, like Ishi, were Native Americans, displayed to huge crowds as missing links to cavemen or the last remaining members of their tribe.

The following chapter is devoted entirely to Tod Browning’s Freaks. I’ve never understood the world’s fascination with that movie. It doesn’t strike me as particularly funny, and I don’t enjoy watching it for its sideshow interest, as I think many viewers do. Probably the best way to view the film is as a story involving human beings—and in part, I think that’s what Adams is getting at in this chapter. She talks about a stage play later created of the film that doesn’t give that same honor to the performers as true humans. One of the most interesting things about this film—which is I think what Browning intended—is the tension the viewer (at least the thinking one) must necessarily feel. Polite people are told not to look at or laugh at the freaks, yet the film requires us to stare. What are we to do?

Adams explains my sentiments in a far more scholarly manner. She says that the photography addresses the capacity these “freaks” have for “the dynamics of normative movement” (68). The film toys with freakishness of size and sexuality of its performers. Most importantly, it includes the audience, reaching out to say you’re “one of us” (85).

The next section deals with “The Queer Fiction of Carson McCullers.” I didn’t realize before I read it that Carson McCullers had been a bisexual woman who was more often in a “triangular” relationship with two men than any other (but she also was with women).

Adams argues that McCullers’s fiction is “populated by freaks” with disabilities that interfere with the formation of “identity” (89). Adams says McCullers connects queer and freaks in her writing, saying that while queer generally refers to “acts that cannot be referred to as heterosexual”, freaks refers to “beings who make all kinds of queer tendencies visible on the body’s surfaces” (90). Both freaks and queers suffer in her stories because they don’t fit in socially. These freaks can be seen, says Adams, as “aspects of the self” (91). They are produced not by nature but by the judgments of the community (91). Adams gives as examples characters in Clock without Hands and Member of the Wedding.

In “Freak Photography,” Adams connects the photography of Diane Arbus with Carson McCullers’s fiction, saying that Arbus’s photographs of “freaks” is “motivated by a knowing appreciation for the waning popular culture of sideshows in America (112). Some of the other contemporary work with “freak” photography is interesting because it parodies the work of original sideshow photographers—as well as that of fashion photographers—by showing “freaks” in poses traditionally reserved for fashion models. Zoe Leonard’s Pin-up #1 (Jennifer Miller does Marilyn Monroe) is a good example; a bearded lady lays nude in a provocative S-pose….beautiful until one notices her beard (136). The photograph draws attention to one’s expectation about beauty.

Another interesting chapter is “From the Sideshow to the Streets: Performing the ‘Secret Self.’” Here, Adams talks about the term freak as it is applied to hippies, the Woodstock scene, drug culture, sex, etc. She discusses the way the term derived its positive connotation from a negative one. Adams also discusses Geek Love.

I don’t think the American fascination with freaks is unique; other cultures do it as well. Maybe it’s just an interesting phenomen. Ho hum.

No comments: